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Midway through, Sochi Games delivering for Putin

Sunday - 2/16/2014, 8:42am  ET

A Russian policeman watches a men's ice hockey match between USA and Russia on a large video screen at an entertainment venue associated with the 2014 Winter Olympics, Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014, in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

AP Senior Sports Writer

SOCHI, Russia (AP) -- No protests. No real problems.

But plenty of Putin.

Midway through the Winter Olympics, things couldn't be going much better for both Russia and its president, even if winter is actually missing from Sochi itself. The arenas and mountains are spectacular, the games have been peaceful and protest-free, and Russians seem filled with pride about their country's ability to put on a spectacle for the world to see.

Worries about terrorist attacks and fears that gay protests could overshadow the Olympics have faded as the world's best battle for medals on the ice and in the snow. Grandstands are mostly filled, television ratings are strong, and athletes haven't said a negative word about either Russia's laws or the food in the athlete's village.

Yes, a heat wave turned the snow a bit slushy and drew bathers to the Black Sea just steps from the main Olympic stadium. But weather is a factor at any Winter Games, and even Vladimir Putin can't do anything about that.

In charge of it all is the Russian president, who won the games with a personal plea and has so far treated them as his personal playground. Putin presided over the opening ceremonies, celebrated his country's first gold medal on ice with figure skaters, and watched stone-faced as the Russian hockey team lost an epic shootout Saturday to the U.S. in a tournament that means more to the country than 100 gold medals.

On Friday he even paid a visit to the U.S. team house, where he wore a pin that read "Happy Valentine's Day from Team USA" while chatting with athletes over a glass of wine.

If these are Putin's Olympics, he has spared no expense to put them on. They are the costliest ever, a $51 billion gamble that transcends sports as part of an effort to show Russia's resurgence as a world power.

Are they worth it? They just might be to some of the fans getting Russian flags painted on their faces earlier in the week as they waited to enter the figure skating arena.

"It is very special for us," said Diana Severyukhin, a Sochi-area resident who was attending the skating with her urologist father. "I'm proud of our country to be here."

Russian fans waved flags and cheered wildly as the home country won its first gold in team figure skating, though the opening week wasn't all fun and games. Four-time medalist Evegny Plushenko fell in the short program and withdrew from his attempt to make Olympic history, and the Russian hockey team was so shaky in its opener that one sports writer asked the coach if it was "a death sentence" should the team let Semyon Varlamov remain in goal.

The U.S. took its lumps, too. Prohibitive favorite Shaun White was shut out in his bid for two gold medals, speedskater Shani Davis came up short, and Bode Miller and Julia Mancuso missed medals in the downhill. If it weren't for a strong showing by U.S. women in sports invented in recent years mostly on American slopes, the perennial Olympic power would be an also ran in these games.

And then there was the equipment malfunction that short-circuited U.S. hopes in speed skating -- or so the skaters believe. The high-tech uniforms that were supposed to make them go even faster were a drag, they claimed, and they switched back to the old ones to try and get back on the medal podium.

Norwegians, meanwhile, kept winning, though few paid attention. The country of just 5 million people is the leading medal winner in Olympic history, but the sports of cross country and biathlon aren't high on the glamour list and don't translate well on TV.

The first full week of the Olympics, though, was as much about what didn't happen as what did.

Sochi wasn't overrun by packs of marauding stray dogs, as some journalists had come to expect. Hotel rooms were finished for the most part, and there has been nothing but raves over the efficiency of an Olympic transportation system charged with moving people between the mountains and the coast.

And while temperatures soared higher than snowboarders on a slick halfpipe, there was plenty of snow stockpiled in the mountains and no truth to the quip that snowboarding would become waterboarding.

Most seriously, there was no sign that Islamic terrorists who roam just a few hundred miles over the mountains have done anything to carry out their leader's pre-Olympic plea to disrupt the games.

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